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An Inside Look at a Party Switch That Changed History

Politics: Sen. Jim Jeffords' departure from the GOP had roots in a March conversation with a Democrat, and in the administration's cavalier treatment of him.


WASHINGTON — Sens. Jim Jeffords and Chris Dodd sat in armchairs in Dodd's office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

The Vermont Republican and the Connecticut Democrat, their ties loosened, drank sodas and talked that last Friday in March about money for special education.

Jeffords' frustrations spilled out. He complained that even though he was chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he was battling both the White House and his own party over providing education aid to children with disabilities.

In a time of huge surpluses and so many unmet needs, he asked, why was everyone in the GOP deaf to those needs and so eager to give tax breaks to the wealthy?

Dodd told him there always was room for him in the Democratic Party.

A long silence followed. Finally Jeffords spoke. "You know, I could never be a Democrat, but I could be an independent."

Timing a Question

Almost two months would pass before Jeffords made the jump. When he did, he would turn control of the Senate from one party to another for the first time in history outside an election and hand President Bush the biggest setback of his presidency.

Those close to Jeffords differ on when the senator decided to shed his Republican label.

His closest aide, Susan Boardman Russ, says she believes it was May 15, when he met secretly in his Capitol hideaway office with Senate Democratic leaders Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Harry Reid of Nevada.

His wife, Liz, says it was a week later, when Jeffords discussed the issue with his conservative son.

Jeffords himself says it was the next day, as he flew back to Vermont after an emotional meeting with his moderate GOP colleagues.

All agree there were several key moments in the path to independence, none more important than April 4, five days after Jeffords' comments to Dodd.

For more than a week, Jeffords had been in intense negotiations with Republican leaders and the White House over the president's tax cut and the budget outline that would make it possible. In a 50-50 Senate, Jeffords' support was crucial for passing the centerpiece of Bush's agenda.

On April 2 he met with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Majority Leader Trent Lott, and then late in the day with Vice President Dick Cheney. Jeffords was pushing for $180 billion over the next decade for special education for the disabled, a program he had championed since entering Congress in 1975.

The next morning, Domenici made Jeffords a new offer, one that looked good to the Vermont senator. By the afternoon, the offer was rescinded; Domenici said he could not sell it to conservatives.

The sticking point was whether the special education money would simply be a goal in the budget outline or would come with a written commitment making the spending mandatory.

"To me, for the president's education program to be successful, substantial resources are going to be needed for the state and local governments to make it work, or it could be a disaster," Jeffords said.

When the negotiations broke down on April 3, Jeffords made it clear he intended to attend a news conference the next day to endorse a compromise plan by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). The GOP leaders asked for more talks on April 4, when everyone was fresh.

The call did not come, though. Jeffords and his staff waited as the morning went by without a meeting. By the afternoon on April 4, they went to Domenici's hideaway office in the Capitol, but no representatives were there from the White House. Domenici left to get them; when they returned shortly, nothing new was offered.

Jeffords, Russ and Mark Powden, who was Jeffords' staff director of the education committee, asked the White House representatives to leave. Jeffords was then joined by Ken Connolly, his legislative director, and Erik Smulson, his communications director.

"This is ridiculous," Russ said. "You don't do this to a United States senator."

Jeffords, angry and now believing that the White House had never planned to give the commitment on education he wanted, left Domenici's office and hurried to the press gallery where the Breaux news conference was in progress.

His arrival signaled the beginning of the end of Bush's original tax cut plan, as well as Jeffords' long association with the Republican Party. He would soon cast his vote that day in favor of an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to reduce Bush's tax cut by $450 billion and divide the money between education and debt reduction.

The story of how Jeffords left the Republican Party started decades ago. "It's been mounting over 20 years," Jeffords said.

Since his first election to Congress in 1974, Jeffords often found himself at odds with his party.

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